Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Rating: 9/10

Is it better to have loved and lost, than to never have loved at all?
Is it better to live in ignorant bliss, or to live the hard truths of life in knowledgeable gloom?

These are two questions that come to mind foremost when thinking of this affecting 1960s sci-fi novel. However, Flowers for Algernon is much more, addressing complex and difficult themes ranging from the ethics of scientific advancement, what it means to be human, the role of empathy in our lives, social stigma and prejudice towards the less able, loneliness, isolation, and self-identity/perception.

Largely unaware of the book before sitting down to read (I had heard of it a few years ago in passing, but remembered little), I was surprised to learn afterwards that it was written almost 60 years ago. You can obviously feel that the book is set in 1950/60s New York, but I presumed it was a contemporary novel written in that setting. A classic. I flew through this novel in just three sittings. A few highlighted quotes:

  • People resent being shown that they don’t approach the complexities of the problem—they don’t know what exists beyond the surface ripples.
  • By my astonishing growth I had made them shrink and emphasized their inadequacies. I had betrayed them
  • Maybe the fear and nausea was no longer a sea to drown in, but only a pool of water reflecting the past alongside the now.
  • Strange about learning; the farther I go the more I see that I never knew even existed. A short while ago I foolishly thought I could learn everything—all the knowledge in the world. Now I hope only to be able to know of its existence, and to understand one grain of it.
  • What is my place? Who and what am I now? Am I the sum of my life or only of the past months?
  • No one had spoken of hope. The feeling was of living death—or worse, of never having been fully alive and knowing. Souls withered from the beginning, and doomed to stare into the time and space of every day.
  • I soak it up into my pores during the day, and at night—in the moments before I pass off into sleep—ideas explode into my head like fireworks. There is no greater joy than the burst of solution to a problem.
  • How many great problems have gone unsolved because men didn’t know enough, or have enough faith in the creative process and in themselves, to let go for the whole mind to work at it?
  • I’ve gone as far as I can on a conscious level, and now it’s up to those mysterious operations below the level of awareness. It’s one of those inexplicable things, how everything I’ve learned and experienced is brought to bear on the problem. Pushing too hard will only make things freeze up.
  • “No one really starts anything new, Mrs. Nemur. Everyone builds on other men’s failures. There is nothing really original in science. What each man contributes to the sum of knowledge is what counts.”
  • Who’s to say that my light is better than your darkness? Who’s to say death is better than your darkness?
  • an experimental failure, the disproving of a theory, was as important to the advancement of learning as a success would be.
  • I know I should sleep, but I begrudge every second of waking time. It’s not just because of the nightmares; it’s because I’m afraid of letting go. I tell myself there’ll be time enough to sleep later, when it’s dark.
  • I was on a down escalator now. If I stood still I’d go all the way to the bottom, but if I started to run up maybe I could at least stay in the same place. The important thing was to keep moving upward no matter what happened.
  • I lerned alot of things that I never even new were in this werld and Im grateful I saw it all even for a littel bit.